STEVE INSKEEP, host:
One of the companies involved in the tainted milk scandal used to be well-known for another reason. It ran high-profile ads promoting itself as the official milk supplier for Chinese astronauts. China's manned space program is a source of pride for the country, and now China's about to launch its most ambitious space mission yet. Astronauts are expected to do China's first space walk. And all of this has some people wondering about another kind of walk for China, a moonwalk. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Back in 2003, China put a man in orbit, becoming only the third nation to do so. China's first space excursion was a quick one-day up-and-back affair. But two years later, China counted down to a more complex mission.
(Soundbite of countdown in Chinese)
GREENFIELDBOYCE: They launched two men in space.
(Soundbite of spaceship launching)
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The astronauts spent nearly a week orbiting Earth. Now, China's news agencies are filled with coverage of the next launch, which could happen as soon as tomorrow. This time the capsule will carry three astronauts. One of them will step out into space and go for a stroll. The feat may be shown on live TV. Meanwhile, China has a small probe orbiting the moon. It was sent up last October on a mapping mission. Earlier this month it broadcast special greetings for China's autumn celebration known as the moon festival. China also has plans for a robotic moon rover. So, it's perhaps not surprising that lately whenever NASA administrator Michael Griffin goes to Capitol Hill to testify about the space agency's budget woes, talk turns to China's lunar intentions. Earlier this year, Griffin told lawmakers that his views on China had changed.
Dr. MICHAEL GRIFFIN (Administrator, NASA): A few years ago I was not particularly concerned about Chinese primacy in human space flight relative to that of the United States.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But Griffin said his visit to China in 2006, plus the country's progress in space since then, makes him think they really could go for a moon shot.
Dr. GRIFFIN: I have become convinced that it is possible for China to mount a human lunar mission toward the end of the next decade, and quite possibly before we are able to return.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: NASA is building a new spacecraft to return Americans to the moon around 2019. In a speech last week, Griffin said he wasn't trying to, quote, "engender a new space race with China." But he did note that China was developing a new rocket that could soon put China's manned capsule into orbit around the moon like Apollo 8. And in the past, he's noted that China says it has 200,000 people working on its space program. Now, some analysts who watch China's space program say all of this may be true, but the fact that China could aim for the moon doesn't necessarily mean that it plans to.
Dr. GREGORY KULACKI (Senior Analyst, Union of Concerned Scientists): China is relatively closed about its plannings for its space program, but they have never made a statement that they intend to have a manned mission to the moon.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Gregory Kulacki does work in China for the Union of Concerned Scientists. He knows a lot of researchers in China's space program, and he's there now for the launch. He says Chinese officials are frequently asked about a manned lunar mission.
Dr. KULACKI: The standard answer to that question is, no, there are no plans at this time, but that's something we might think about in the future.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says for two decades China's space program has been following one plan.
Dr. KULACKI: The goal of that plan is not to put people on the moon, but in a permanently manned Chinese space station in orbit. And that's their goal.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Even if China did start rushing to the moon, budget constraints would make it hard for NASA to speed up its own lunar plans. Congressman Bart Gordon is chair of the House Committee on Science and Technology.
Representative BART GORDON (Democrat, Tennessee; Chairman, House Committee on Science and Technology): With the meltdown in the financial sector, the price of gas, so many problems that face our country right now, this is not a high-level issue for Congress at all.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: After all, the American flag is already on the moon. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.